Men. Men with guns. Why not? Two of them, two men, and in keeping with my usual themes they’ll be brothers. The older of the two, that’s Jack—and while we’re on the subject, the younger one’s Lawrence. God, just looking at them, you’re reminded—they’re the kind of people who can remind you—of what the difference is between the merely good-looking and the truly beautiful, between those of us who are fine to look at and those of us who are fine the same way a masterpiece is fine. These two men, our brothers, are really and truly handsome, so handsome it’s almost painful sometimes to look at them.
You see them out of the corner of your eye in the supermarket, buying supermarket brand laundry detergent, the cheap shampoo, deodorant, two or three litre bottles of soda and instant coffee and all of a sudden you get the Feeling. You’re jealous. You want to be like them; they’re special. That’s the power of the honestly handsome, like some kind of magic. You want to know who they are—who are they, you wonder—and where they come from, why they’re here, the full and annotated list of what’s in the shopping cart down to if they’re buying toilet paper or not and if they are, what kind. Without being able to stop yourself, you’re willing to stoop that low for them, for the power their beauty has over you. Really beautiful people can do that, giving you the physical impression, lancing straight through your belly, that they have a story to tell and, most importantly, you actually want to hear it.
These are my brothers. Don’t forget about their guns; I’ll get to them. Jack and Lawrence have guns for a reason, not just for that rule you learned in your playwriting workshop when you were fourteen years old: if there’s a gun in scene one, someone’s going to get shot by the time the curtain comes down in the last act. That’s also the same class in which you learned the “Who’s there?” line that opens Hamlet is the crux of the matter, just as all first lines are the crux of the matter. The crux of my matter is men, men with guns, though I’m no man and shot only once, cans off a fence in the middle of nowhere, Massachusetts, but never mind.
Jack is twenty-five and Lawrence is twenty. In the supermarket. Shopping. You watch them go up and down the aisles like shopping in the supermarket is something relatively special, which makes you wonder if the daily routine feel of it, teabags and tomato sauce and dairy and dog food, doesn’t soothe them somehow, rhythmic lullaby that it is, humdrum and weary.
Five years ago something terrible happened. Jack made a choice—decisions have to be made no matter how you have to make them, and there’s no way to avoid life’s most ordinary progression. It’s possible Jack made the right choice and the terrible thing happened anyway, the right terrible thing. Or maybe it was honest-to-god random, nothing premeditated or foreordained. Just roll with it. Here’s what went down.
Jack was twenty, without the same bruises in his eyes that lend them such depth of color, the bruises he has now, in aisle five, wondering if he should buy tuna even though he’s not really a fan because at least it’s cheap.
(Twenty year-old Jack, five years ago. Come on, make a decision.)
Twenty year-old Jack knows things most people don’t know, like how pirates maraud the night sky in ships of dark matter echoing the deepest ripples of a dark energy sea. He know that all this has to do with how we sleep and why we dream, the importance of our human nature, the littler monsters, fear and the creep of faith. There’s only one real god left, king of dreaming, and someone’s got to keep him and his pirates in check. Someone’s got to be a sandman. Someone’s got to look out for the people who might drown in their dreams. It’s just him and Lawrence now since Dad sailed off into that ocean three years back and left them the family business, sentinels of sleep.
Have I copped out? Are dreams unsatisfying? They’re dangerous territory, everyone says so.
“Look after your brother,” Dad says, just before he leaves. “Either I’ll make a difference or I won’t, but can you do that, Jack?”
“Yeah,” Jack says. “Yeah, I can do that.”
“All right.” Dad claps him on the shoulder.
But that was three years before the terrible thing, not that three years is enough to get over any loss as fundamental as that, especially when Jack knows how dangerous it is to close his eyes. For three years, Jack remembers his father’s advice: sleep in shifts, watch for the signs, don’t look over your shoulder when you run ‘cause seeing what’s there won’t help you and looking only slows you down. Can you do that, Jack? Yeah, Jack can do that. Jack does that for three years until the terrible thing happens in the face of something that might have been worse.
Sleep almost takes Lawrence.
How does Jack know? Jack knows. Dreams are just waiting for you to let your guard down, which is what sleep’s supposed to be, only Jack’s never known that kind of rest and, through force of habit and the secrets he lives by knowing, he’s long since stopped craving it. Lawrence is fifteen, though, a dangerous age, and Jack’s not Dad. Jack lets his guard down sometimes. Jack isn’t ready to sail off into the night, dreams twinkling in the darkness like the stars and everything in between their separate, burning worlds unmapped and stretching by the second. Twenty kilometers per second, to be exact.
Sleep almost takes Lawrence and Jack goes in there, guns blazing, just to stop it. Can’t save someone you love from a good dream, Dad used to say, because you’re too close. Your dream self might even be in that dream and what happens then? You both die. Guns don’t work on a doppelganger. You die in a dream, you stay dead everywhere. Jack knows all this and he goes in there, guns blazing, to pull Lawrence out. It’s never been done before. Look after your brother. Can you do that, Jack? Yeah, I can do that.
Jack just doesn’t talk about what happened in there. Lawrence doesn’t remember it. What matters, what’s important, is that Jack pulls Lawrence out, but the action’s not without its price; you shoot dreams up enough they tear and Dad never explained what to do with a torn dream other than let it bleed out into the real world, nothing to do but wait for the dream poison to get into your waking veins. Only, Jack thinks as the terrible thing is done, only Lawrence is safe and that’s what counts. Other people are going to die in the dreaming but Jack feels zero remorse and if called on to do it again, he knows what he’d say. And that’s that.
Getting into a dream is easy, just don’t forget to go in armed. Set up the dream catchers just right and you can catch yourself inside a dream.
Maybe dreams are copping out. They’re certainly dangerous territory. What you have to remember is that here, dreams count just as much as the waking stuff; that’s the catch, the center, the head of the pin, the heart of the web. We are such stuff as dreams are made of; we’re made of stars. Just relax. Let go. Believe it. The dreams are tearing at the fissures of the real and they’re bleeding through, little by little. Jack knows—it’s his fault. We’re responsible for what we dream.
Jack and Lawrence don’t actually exist, so when I see them in the supermarket, needless to say, I don’t even believe it.
“Hey, do we want cheerios or what?” Jack asks, holding up the box and giving it a shake. “Cause they taste like cardboard, man, no way I’m eating that crap.”
“Yeah, well, we can’t get honey bunches of diabetes for breakfast, either,” Lawrence says.
“Jesus,” Jack says, but he puts the cheerios in the cart anyway.
This is the Shelburne Falls Stop’n’Shop, nee Price Chopper. Jack and Lawrence shouldn’t be here, and not just because I made them up. This is self-insertion of the worst kind, but who’s going to stop it? Me? I don’t even know what’s going on, but there they are, men with guns, rifling through for the cheapest coffee and as beautiful as I always imagined. They have the same chin and Jack has the more striking eyes. He also has a vulnerable mouth, which he makes up for by looking at you sideways and setting his jaw to make sure you don’t notice. Somehow Lawrence, who’s taller and more serious, still looks younger anyway. I didn’t even recognize their car out in the lot.
I try to remember what it means, if anything, that I’m seeing them. Something to do with dreams.
“Adirondack Ginger Ale,” Jack says. “Awesome. Pretty cheap, too.”
If I ignore him, maybe he’ll go away. I spend a lot of time looking at the bread until I’m sure they’ve got to be done by now, done and already on the road, moving on, chasing dreams and keeping guard and not really resolving their issues. That much I remember: unresolved issues. I like unresolved issues, men, men with guns, dreams, oblique references to the science I’ve picked up over the years. The usual tropes. Brothers.
I’m not expecting it when our eyes meet at last over the Good Humor ice cream sandwiches, which I can’t eat because I’m lactose intolerant. We’re responsible for what we dream—I remember that part.
“Shit,” Jack says. “It’s you.”
The first thing I can think of to say, I say. “Are you mad?” I ask.
“Yeah,” he says. “A little.”
“How’s, uh,” I ask, “how’s Lawrence?”
“Alive,” Jack says. “Probably buying wonderbread right now. Shit, that was fast.”
“What was fast?”
“Well,” Jack explains, “we’ve been looking for you. Only you’d moved. We figured you were on to us, knew we were coming, didn’t want to face up to what you’d done. I didn’t think you’d just be here.”
“You’re not real,” I point out. “I made you up.”
“Yeah, thanks for that, by the way. I’m really—I’m enjoying all the things you did to us.” Jack plays with the amulet I gave him and never figured out the actual meaning for, something I actually found once at a museum and had to have, a little vial full of liquid and something they called ‘star dust’ but was probably dirt or glitter or something. I also gave Jack the tendency to play with the amulet, his good, manly fingers, dirty fingernails significant of some character trait, like how maybe being clean isn’t as important as getting the job done.
“So,” I say. “Are you—is this payback or something?”
“Unfinished business,” Jack says. “We tore that dream world open, sweetcheeks. You and me.” He comes around to my side and puts a hand on my arm, smelling all manly, and a little bit like detergent. He’s wearing red corduroy, my favorite of his favorite button-down shirts. “But you never finished the story. So, now we’ve got a problem.”
“We’re responsible for what we dream?”
“Hole in one,” Jack says. “Come on out to the car. Lawrence is waiting.”